Salmonflies and Golden Stoneflies

By Scott Richmond

"Those big guys like to lay up near the shore and wait for salmonflies to drift down to them," said the guy at the fly shop. "You can see some real hawgs only a couple of feet from the bank."

None of this made sense to me. I'd only been seriously fly fishing for a year, but I was quite sure that big trout lived only in the middle of the river in deep water. Why would they come in close to shore?

Still, the fly shop guy had been right before, so when I went to the Deschutes in early June I tried an experiment: I pulled a live, two-inch long salmonfly off an alder branch and plopped it onto the water about two feet from shore, in an area where the water was two feet deep. The bug drifted downstream for about 20 feet, then there was a loud sucking sound and it disappeared in a huge swirl.

I've been an ardent believer in fishing bankwater ever since.

Salmonflies--the adult form of the giant stonefly (Pteronarcys californica)--don't hatch in open water like mayflies . Instead, the nymphs crawl to shore under low light conditions, then climb onto rocks, tree branches, grass stems, and other above-water objects and emerge in the open air. Emergence is a lengthy process, taking an hour or more before they are ready for flight, and usually occuring in the dark so hungry birds won't pick off the vulnerable insects.

Adults live for a couple of weeks after hatching, and they can be thick in the overhanging alders and grass stems near the water's edge. They are most active in the afternoon, when it's warm, and they are often blown onto the water by the wind. Mating takes place in the vegetation after a week or so. Gravid females then return to the river, generally from late afternoon until dusk. Sometimes they lay their eggs by dipping their abdomens in the water, but sometimes they sprawl on the surface or get stuck in the water. Either way, they are vulnerable to trout.

Salmonflies have probably inspired more fly-tying innovations than any other insect. Modern patterns include:

  1. Stimulator
  2. MacSalmon
  3. Clarks Stonefly
  4. Madam X
  5. Sofa Pillow

Unfortunately, most anglers miss the point: presentation is as much a part of this hatch as any other factor, and the fly pattern must be chosen with presentation in mind.

For example, foam-bodied patterns and flies with lots of hackle will float well in rough water. They are a good choice when you're casting to riffles. However, these flies are difficult to cast accurately. If you're fishing pocket water or up under the tree branches, you'll do better with an imitation that you can place with more precision, such as a Clark's Stonefly or a MacSalmon. Not only can you put the fly where the fish want it, but you'll leave fewer flies adorning the tree branches.

Consider the wind, too. Afternoon winds are common on many salmonfly rivers, and the bullethead patterns such as the MacSalmon will not be blown around as much as a heavily hackled, hairwinged Sofa Pillow.

Another presentation factor is the disturbance caused by the fly hitting the water. The big, heavy flies make a real splash when they land. In rough water that's not such an issue, but when you're fishing a bankwater slick, that big splash can put the fish down. When a real salmonfly alights on the water, it settles softly and makes a bit of a fuss with its wings. It doesn't go "ker-sploosh."

The two primary points of vulnerability--when adults are blown out of shoreside vegetation and when females lay eggs--are what fly anglers should imitate with their presentations. Trout are quick to adapt to the hatch season, and you soon find them near the shore, downstream and downwind from vegetation. There they wait for hapless salmonflies to fall onto the water and float down to them. The fly fisher's strategy seems obvious: toss a big salmonfly pattern onto the water and let it drift to the trout.

What will also become obvious, however, is that the big-name salmonfly rivers such as the Deschutes, Rogue "Holy Water", Big Hole, and others, attract a lot of anglers during the samonfly season. Trout aren't incautious animals, and they are soon aware of the anglers and wary of them.

For this reason, approach the water with care. Be stealthy, even crawling on your hands and knees and hiding behind trees. Then, if possible, present your fly with a downstream presentation so the trout see the fly before they see the leader and line.

Since the adults are most active in the afternoon and evening, a good strategy is to cast nymphs in the morning, then switch to dries for the afternoon. And don't go home early. Sometimes the egg-laying flights are awesome. I've stood on the banks of the Rogue "Holy Water" while thousands and thousands of females swarmed in the air. As the sun sank lower, so did the cloud of salmonflies. By twilight they were dropping to the water, and many were taken by trout. But few trout were taken by anglers. Why? Because the "Holy Water" is a crowded stretch of river during salmonfly season. Most anglers just kept casting and casting, and ended up putting down all the fish that were near them. If they'd just put up the rod for ten minutes, those nearby fish would have started rising again and would have been receptive to a well-placed artificial.

Another good spot to look for trout is in pockets behind or alongside boulders. Trout rest near the bottom, but their eyes are trained into the slots and shoots that will bring food to them. Put your fly into the slot and let it drift naturally to the fish. When fishing pocket water, you'll do better with a pattern that casts accurately and lands quietly, such as a Clark's Stonefly.

Sometimes a good strategy is to use a bushy dry fly, such as a Stimulator, and treat the hackles with plenty of fly dressing so they'll stay dry. Then cast down-and-across stream and let the fly "skate" across the surface. This skating presentation can drive trout wild and result in slamming strikes. Or it may just put the fish down. It's not a 100-percent reliable strategy, but it's worth a try now and then.

Generally, a short, heavy tippet--3X or even 2X--will help you cast big, bulky flies more accurately. You also want a strong leader because a few errant flies are going to land in the trees and grass along the riverbank. A heavy leader gives you a better chance of pulling the fly out of the brush.

Just because the bankside alders are crawling with salmonflies, don't assume the trout give a rip. It can take them awhile to re-orient themselves from gorging on bottom-bouncing stonefly nymphs to looking for adults on the surface. Also, there are other excellent hatches at the same time of year, and trout may switch from salmonflies to PMDs or caddis if those bugs are emerging.

On the other hand trout are often receptive to salmonfly imitations for a week or more after the giant bugs have gone to the big riffle in the sky.

Everything that's just been said about salmonflies applies to golden stoneflies as well. On rivers that have both hatches, the goldens usually come out a couple of weeks after the salmonflies. When both insects are on the water, trout seem to prefer the goldens. The same tactics and fly patterns work, but golden stones are slightly smaller than salmonflies and are a different color (as the name implies, they're a pale yellow-gold color).

Scott Richmond is Westfly's creator and Executive Director. He is the author of eight books on Oregon fly fishing, including Fishing Oregon's Deschutes River (second edition).